Last week, the Philippines’ navy chief made headlines when he suggested that Japan could be looking to provide more maritime patrol aircraft for the Philippines. While the remarks lacked specifies and were not altogether surprising given the ongoing security cooperation between the two sides already underway, they nonetheless deserve notice given their potential significance for bilateral ties and Philippine capabilities.
As I have noted before, Japan-Philippines defense ties under Rodrigo Duterte have continued strengthening amid some uncertainties and refocusing as part of their broader partnership (See: “Japan-Philippines Defense Relations Under Duterte: Full Steam Ahead?”). Though Japan’s defense assistance to the Philippines includes several lines of effort, from capacity-building to equipment transfer, one of these is the agreement for the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF) to donate five Beechcraft TC-90 trainer aircraft to Manila.
The TC-90s deal, which initially emerged in 2016 before Duterte took office, was significant within the context of Japan-Philippine ties as well as Japan’s security role more broadly. Most notably, it was a first instance of Japan transferring excess defense equipment to another country free of charge – the initial agreement was amended from a lease to a donation – following ongoing changes in its domestic laws and it was a major boost for Manila given its limited ability to conduct regular and extensive patrols of the South China Sea (See: “Why Japan’s New Military Aircraft Gift to the Philippines Matters”)
The deal has been operationalized over the past few years, with rounds of training for Philippine naval pilots starting, the first two of the TC-90s delivered in March 2017, and the other three delivered in March 2018, effectively completing that part of the deal between the two sides. With the completion of the initial arrangement and as the aircraft begin to be utilized by Manila, there was always a possibility that both sides would explore additional cooperation in this realm as well.
That prospect was in the headlines last week when, in an interview, Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad reportedly said that Japan was inclined to give the Philippines more maritime patrol aircraft. “During my last visit to Japan, the head of the JMSDF said he is inclined to give the PN more of the aircraft (TC-90) they earlier gave us,” Empedrad reportedly told military-run DWDD radio last Wednesday in comments that were reported in several local media outlets subsequently as well.
Empedrad did not offer further details that would be important in any sort of agreement, including a timeline for potential finalization and transfer as well as the terms of any deal. However, he did reiterate the fact that additional capabilities such as those could potentially be a big boost for the Navy in various areas, including reconnaissance and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. For that as well as its significance for the wider bilateral relationship, any further developments with respect to this will remain important to watch.